I’ll admit it: by the time I was growing up in this country, multiculturalism was already a fundamental part of Canadian government policy. That said, I went to a school in Halifax that was almost completely white, and once I was in university, I realized to my embarrassment that I had been surrounded by all sorts of racism that, as a teen wandering through the mists of girls, puberty and snack foods, I simply hadn’t recognized.
Nova Scotia, even in the 1980s, was still a place where racist jokes could be said out loud in places as public as Tim Hortons.
But I thought we were getting somewhere. I thought that, as a country, we were getting better at looking past the outside trappings of people’s clothing and religious iconography. Clearly, I was wrong.
The first hint? Quebec’s odious social charter. For anyone who has been living under a rock, Quebec’s provincial government is proposing a Charter of Quebec Values. The government describes the charter as a removal of religion from the public sphere — no more religious clothing or symbols for anyone working directly or indirectly for government. In fact, though, it removes some symbols, while allowing existing Christian symbols throughout the province to remain on a “historical” basis. Religious clothing? Not if you’re working for the government. Or accompanying your children on a school-sponsored trip.
Call it what it is; xenophobia is probably too polite. Overt racism? Not a bad start.
It’s cunning way to simply disenfranchise whole groups of people based on their religion — nothing more and nothing less.
It is also a thinly veiled effort to appeal to the most base part of human nature — the part that hides our own failings behind a hatred for the “special treatment” of those who are somehow different.
Instead of looking in the mirror for why we might be where we are, it’s easier to pick some other identifiable group and blame everything on them.
The second hint? That the Quebec attack on ordinary — but visibly different — people seems to be getting some level of support — not only in Quebec, but beyond those borders. That’s not just sad — it’s pathetic. What’s next? Shall we pick a religion and suggest it’s the reason why hardworking Christians can’t find work? Some kind of international conspiracy? Why, we could have camps …
That all sounds far-fetched, perhaps, and there are those who suggest that the Parti Québécois minority government is simply trying to set up a constitutional stalking-horse to let them attack the rest of Canada for not understanding how Quebec is different and unique.
What a concept that would be: bigotry as political chess.
When you make laws that target specific religious observances, you can, pardon the pun, dress it up any way you like. It’s still racism.
So why talk about Quebec’s particular parlour sport here? Because this is not an issue where you can just shrug and say “whatever.”
I like the approach of an Ontario health board, one that greeted the proposed charter with an immediate advertising campaign that said “We don’t care about what’s on your head — we care about what’s in it.” Chances are, there are a fair few health-care professionals who may, as a result of their religious beliefs, feel less than welcome in La Belle Province. By all means, let’s make them feel welcome somewhere else in Canada.
I don’t care what’s on your head, either. I don’t care where you come from or what you believe, any more than you should care where I come from and believe.
The only thing that should matter is whether you have the skills to do the job you were hired to do.
If good people sit down and shut up about this, then make no mistake: the bigots will win. This is just one first step down a dirty, small-minded and dangerous road. Let’s all do our best to stop it in its tracks.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.